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vierundzwanzig

 

 

“Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

 

            But, of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it:

 

                        For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”

 

 

            The sin humans carry from birth.

 

 

 

            — Possessing the name of the original sin, the stone is.

 

            “The Death of the Key” itself, said to be the judgment given as consequence for the sin. The price for the hubris of granting a wish that never should have been obtainable.

 

            However.

 

                        Is “Death,” truly something which she must receive?

 

            She, who never ate the tree’s fruit.

 

 

 

                        Just what, was her sin?

 

 

            vierundzwanzig ~ (Name) ~ 】

 

 

            The inside of my head, had become empty. I wasn’t thinking, of anything.

 

            Nanoha.”

 

            Hey, this isn’t true, is it?

            Because, we were so very—... so, very.

 

            Nano, ha... Nanoha.”

 

            There was no response.

 

            Warmth gradually left the body I embraced. It was unbearably terrifying. Trying to give her my warmth, I tightly embraced her.

 

            Something like that, wasn’t going to bring Nanoha back.

 

            I didn’t want to accept it. I didn’t want to comprehend it. But, there was nothing else I could do.

 

            “—, u... Ah,”

 

            — My voice strangled, I cried.

 

 

            “... Fate-chan.”

 

            Hayate’s voice, was hoarse as well. — How much time has passed? The sun had completely fallen, and it had already become dark.

 

 

            I didn’t care anymore.

 

            “— Hayate. Why don’t you... head back...

            “Fate-chan, — You aren’t getting any foolish ideas, are you?”

 

            I tightened the arms I embraced Nanoha with. The sleeves that had soaked up the warmth that flowed from Nanoha, were now completely cold.

 

            “Am I wrong!? I’m not, am I!?”

            “—...”

 

 

 

                        Nanoha is not

 

 

            “I know that... I... know, but-”

 

 

                                                in this world.

 

 

            At the words that floated at the edges of my head, I felt terribly nauseous. My stomach felt torn to pieces. I grasped my chest tightly, and felt a hardness sweep down to my toes.

 

            The stone that I still held in my hand, transmitted that feeling from my fingertips. — Perhaps because the warmth of my palm had spread to it, it was slightly warm.

 

            No, rather— It was hot.

 

            “— eh...?”

 

            Something felt wrong about this.

 

            From the time I picked up the stone until the time she took it, I had always been grasping it in my palm. — It hadn’t been so long ago, but it felt like ages.

 

            At that time— had it been this warm, held this much heat?

 

 

            I gently released my palm that had been tightly grasping it. There indeed, was the stone. — But, its appearance was different from usual.

 

            “... Red?”

 

            Just like that time. — No, more so than then, it was a much deeper red. At a glance it truly appeared to be a mass of blood.

 

 

            “—! Fate-chan, let me see that!”

 

            At my murmured words, Hayate stared at what was in my palm. After opening her eyes widely, she immediately called over the Guardian Knights who had remained nearby.

 

            Shamal! I think it’ll be tough, but open a magic circle and keep it going!”

            “R-Right!”

 

            At Hayate’s words, she spread a circle at Nanoha’s feet.

 

            Faint light covered Nanoha’s body. To support it, the three other Guardian Knights opened circles.

 

            “— Haya, te? What are—?”

 

            — If Nanoha’s wound could be healed, it would have already, so why?

 

 

            “Fate-chan, does Nanoha-chan have any cartridges left!?”

 

 

            At those words I hurriedly examined the magazine. Ging, it made a shrill metallic sound. Peeking out, were three remaining cartridges.

 

            “There are three left!”

            “That’s plenty! Fate-chan, hold Nanoha-chan!”

 

            I didn’t understand Hayate’s actions, but as she said, I tightened my arms around Nanoha.

 

 

            “The stone, it’s activating.”

            “— Eh?”

 

            I peered at the stone in my palm. It was casting a dull— and feeble, red light.

 

            “With just that much a link was established. In the end, that girl turned out to be useful!”

            “—... A, link?”

 

            As if to say I didn’t understand, I stared at Hayate. She continued, “Can I save the detailed explanation for afterward?”

 

 

            “I had my doubts for a long time. I’ve been investigating— since the night the stone was stolen.”

            “— Investigating what?”

 

 

            “The reason its name came from Erbsünde.”

 

 

            “The old story,” Hayate continued.

 

            “I borrowed a key for a bit, and snuck into the classified storage department of the castle’s library. I searched through the historical records there. In those pages, there were three recorded incidents of the stone being activated. But in each case, the result was that the stone activated, but not successfully.”

 

            “— Wh, y?”

 

            “Before granting the wish. The stone— devoured the key.”

            “— De, voured?”

 

            At these disturbing words I frowned unconsciously. Then, Hayate frowned in the same way and breathed a sigh.

 

            She took several slow, deep breaths, and continued speaking.

 

            “At the moment it’s immersed in the key’s magical energy, the stone reads the magical energy waves and links with the key’s Linker Core. It seems that because the key, which it always links with beforehand, one-sidedly supplies the magical energy, the stone is able to manifest its own power.”

            “So the supplying— isn’t just temporary.”

 

            “Though it seems that the forced circulation is also due to the amount of magical energy. The human acting as the key’s magical energy, her soul, everything... It’s all consumed and exhausted to grant the wish... a sinful power. The one knowing that and still requesting the wish is even more sinful.”

 

 

            Having said this much, Hayate continued, “It’s detestable.” I glanced at the stone laying in my palm, then took my eyes from it, and looked up at the dark sky.

 

            “Desiring the stone is itself— a sin. It’s a power no human should ever seek. That is the origin of its name.

 

            “... I understand that. — But, why... is it still... activating—?”

 

 

            Without a supply source, it can’t maintain its power. — Even if it doesn’t happen immediately, won’t it stop at some point?

 

 

            “Though it’s unstable, a connective link was established. Because of that, the stone is retaining a large quantity of Nanoha-chan’s magical energy. But— from here on, if a wish is successfully made, the amount of energy it will use is unknown. Even though the supply source is cut off now, there is the possibility that after some time it will be restored... Then, what do you think the stone will do?”

 

            “—..., You, don’t mean—!”

 

            “Bingo. If the supply can come from the key, it can also come from the stone. It makes sense. From a lot, to a little. —... As for whether that will work in reality... I honestly never thought about it.”

 

 

            Hurriedly I put my ear against Nanoha’s breast.

 

 

            “The third princess to be the key.She left just one record.”

 

 

            — Her body that was still cold and without warmth. Her pulse that up until now couldn’t be heard. Her heart that should be stopped after rapidly losing so much blood.

 

            Thump.

 

            “—, Nanoha!”

            “If you think about it, it was originally Nanoha-chan’s. It’s not hard to believe.”

 

 

            It was weak. But—, undoubtedly, there was a sound.

 

            “Luckily, before she went into cardiac arrest from hemorrhagic shock, she connected, though weakly, with the stone. — But, as it is now, there isn‘t enough blood for either side. Even counting the stone’s, the amount still isn’t enough.”

 

            “So.”

 

            “She’s actually coming back— we’ve got to hurry! In the end, that princess didn’t have a means of replenishing her magical energy, and bled to death.”

 

 

            Hayate moved her gaze to Raising Heart, and after a moment, closed her eyes. — Then, she took a single deep breath.

 

            “But this time, we have Shamal. — Though it’s risky, we have a way to do a blood transfusion.”

            “—, What do we have to do!?”

 

            “Overload her cartridges and distribute the magical energy that Raising Heart had swallowed into Nanoha-chan’s body. — But with that, even though magical energy can be stored when the stone hasn‘t activated, that energy will also eventually be taken up by the stone.”

 

            As if, she were remembering something. Hayate shook her head several times. After a few moments, she activated the Device she held.

 

 

            “Thus— in this case, we’ll simultaneously activate the stone. — Before it flows into the stone, at the same moment that Nanoha-chan’s consciousness is restored— we’ll forcibly sever the connected link.”

 

            “Is that possible?”

 

            “Whether it will succeed or not— I don’t know either. There’s no precedent for it at all. It may be, that the supplied magical energy, the soul, everything will be exhausted, and only the stone will activate. If this happens, the key, Nanoha-chan, will—,”

 

            Cutting off the words she was about to say, Hayate hesitantly closed her mouth. From her lips that she bit down on tightly— “We won’t be able to save Nanoha-chan.”

 

            I heard a small voice.

 

 

            “— Let’s do it. If there’s any hope at all, I want to try!”

 

            At those words, Hayate smiled wryly. “That’s the same thing Nanoha-chan said before.”

 

            “Loading with a different Device might be a little rough. Will you be alright?”

 

            At those words I nodded.

 

 

            I placed Raising Heart in Nanoha’s hands, and put my own hands over them to cover them.

 

            “I’ll be fine, Hayate.”

 

            Before me Hayate spread a large magic circle, and slowly closed her eyes. — She began the incantation.

 

 

            “— Through this, you and I. Call forth the engraved contract.”

 

            At that voice, that light of the stone greatly increased. Badum, a pulse-like magical energy wave covered the area surrounding the stone.

 

 

 

                        Hey, Nanoha.

 

            “The blue moon. The red sea.Within the eternal prison, I sing of my sins.”

 

 

                                    I want to hear your voice.

 

 

            “With this condemnation, destroy the sacrifice I offer you.”

 

            Taking the cue from Hayate’s raised hand, I loaded one cartridge. Badum, there was a small sound, and the red gem in the center swallowed up Nanoha’s magical energy.

 

            Raising Heart gave off a dim, faint light.

 

            I immediately loaded the second. Again, there was the sound of swallowing.

After a moment, Nanoha’s left arm was covered in a soft cherry-blossom light.

 

            Pashin. I heard a small sound. — White, tore open.

 

 

            “—, Shamal-sensei!”

            “It’s alright, I’m keeping the circle going! Don’t stop!”

 

            Nanoha’s hand, and my hand that covered it. Were wrapped by warm— cherry-blossom light.

 

            “Please— wake up?”

 

 

            I loaded,

 

 

            “— I ask, here and now.”

 

 

            the third cartridge.

 

            Nanoha

 

 

            “To this foolish one— who tried to extol the paradise in her hands,

 

 

            A wave of magical energy that seemed to burn through my body, colored the area with a single stroke.

 

            “I’m begging you-”

 

            Tightly, I embraced the body in my arms.

 

 

            I’m begging you.

            I don’t want anything else.

 

            So.

 

            Please— come back-!

 

            “Until you wake up,”

 

 

 

            “Leave nothing, and offer judgment.”

 

 

            — The stone, before my eyes.

 

            “—, Fate-chan! It’s activating!”

 

 

                        Everything.

 

            “I’ll keep calling your name”

 

 

                                    Was covered in a great flash.

 

 

 

 

                        Nanoha

 

 

            The world, was bathed in a flood of light. I couldn’t see the palm my own hand.

 

            Amidst this, I did nothing but. Embrace Nanoha tightly.

 

            “—, —”

 

            “—? ...—”

 

 

                 I heard someone’s voice.

            A voice I had missed— terribly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

            u... Fa... te, cha...?”

 

            At that voice I frantically listened, and from her breast, I heard a hoarse, tiny voice. — To answer it. I further tightened the arms I embraced her with.

 

            After a few moments, my embrace was returned by a soft, gentle warmth.

 

            Thump, thump.

 

            Quieter than normal, slow beats. When I understood what they meant— I wanted to cry.

 

            Nanoha-!”

 

 

            Tink.

            Within this pure-white world— something made a sound.

 

            It was coming from inside my palm.

 

            Chink, a minute fracture formed in it. I felt it crack, and fall to my feet.

 

 

            “—, uu...”

 

            The magical energy wave covering the area was already a shadow of its former self, the flash fading. — The world, rapidly regained its natural color.

 

            But my vision, still receiving the after effects, was flickering and hazy, and couldn’t view it. Even after rubbing my irritated eyes, the scenery was distorted, covered only by black shadows.

 

            Even when I tried my best to open them, it wasn’t easy.

 

            “—”

 

 

            I felt by touch.

 

            The feeling of silk. — A ribbon? Gradually my fingertips slid downward, and touched soft hair.

 

            I brushed along hair that was tied off to the side, following it down to arrive at the nape of the neck.

 

            — It was soft. And it was terribly, warm.

 

 

            Nanoha,”

 

            I touched those cheeks, then wrapped them with both hands. Moving my fingertips slightly, I touched the refined bridge of a nose.

 

            I gradually could no longer be satisfied with just touching with my palms, and brought my cheek close. My nose was tickled by a sweet scent. A quiet exhalation, brushed against my forehead.

 

            “Mm...,”

 

 

            A hoarse voice. Touching my cheek, were slightly shaking fingertips. After a short while, it was wrapped by a warm palm.

 

            Soon— before my opening field of vision, deep blue was reflected.

 

            Fa... te... cha...?”

            “—, Nanoha-!”

 

            Tears overflowed. The scenery blurred.

 

            “— This isn’t a dream? It’s real!?”

            “Yes. ... I’m here.”

 

 

            I heard your voice, Nanoha said. As my awareness was vanishing. As the world was crumbling.

 

            I heard your voice, calling my name.

 

            “I’m home—, Fate-chan.”

            “—, Welcome, home. Nanoha.”

 

            Ragged, falling tears ran onto Nanoha’s face. Seeing this, Nanoha smiled widely and troubledly.

 

            “Don’t cry...? Fate-chan.”

            “—”

 

            “It’s alright, it’s alright.” With a hand that still hadn’t recovered its strength, she softly stroked my head.

 

            Nanoha—, Nanoha-”

            “I’m here. I’m still— by your side.”

 

            I embraced, and was embraced.

 

 

            “hu, u... Ah, u, Aah... hu”

 

            The feel of that hand, cut the strained thread of tension.

 

            “—, uah, Aah...!”

 

            I couldn’t keep talking, my tears wouldn’t stop.

 

 

            Nanoha-chan! Fate-chan!”

 

            Hayate came rushing over, and embraced us.

 

            “Thank God.” Again and again her fingertips crawled over Nanoha’s cheeks, wiping the blood off. She hugged my shoulder. “Thank God!”

 

            Like this, her voice rose into loud sobs.

 

 

 

            “... The stone broke, huh...”

 

            Picking up the stone that had fallen at our feet, Nanoha murmured this.

 

            — I didn’t know why something that was so solid broke.

 

            Was the severing of the link with Nanoha too much of a strain on it? Or, was it simply to grant my “wish”?

 

            Whichever it was, it was so cracked it was barely keeping its shape, and cast no light. — There was just that dull-blue color, illuminated by the moonlight.

 

            Nanoha gazed at the stone in thought. But after a moment, she tightly gripped her hand that held the stone in its palm.

 

 

            Pakin, there was a small sound.

 

            She tilted her opened palm. The stone fragments whose original form was completely destroyed, fell as if the ground was breathing them in.

 

            — Soon, that color was completely lost.

 

 

            “... Shall we go home? ... With everyone. —... To Eldorado.”

            “— That’s right. Let’s go. With everyone!”

 

            Nanoha staggered slightly when she stood, and I took her into my arms. When I smiled at her as she twisted her body embarrassedly, her face instantly turned red.

 

            “— This time, we’ll go home together. Nanoha.”

            “Yes. Let’s go home, Fate-chan.”

 

            As we took a few steps forward, across the far, distant sky. From the direction of Eldorado, faintly. — But, clearly.

 

 

 

                        The peal of bells sounding the end of the war, could be heard.

 

 

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